Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday 13 January 2023

The Other OSR—We Deal in Lead

The world has not so much died as moved on. Landscapes seem to stretch on and on, pockmarked by settlements and the ruins of ages past, as strange machinery rumbles below seemingly straining to keep the sky and the ground moving like they did the day before. Old technology, much of it advanced by the standards of then and now, rusts and moulders where it sits; strange creatures—some said to have been things of legend and myth, lurk, ready to pounce and rend the unwary; and magic weaves a cunning attraction for the studious and the curious, the ambitious and the foolish, its knowledge perhaps lost on this world, but not the next. Figures are seen to stalk this world, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of beast which seems to understand their every action and word, and never leave their side, sometimes together in brotherly orders, but all wielding the gun, a deadly artefact that they use to kill. To kill the bandit, the robber, the cheat, and the murder, the apostate of their order, and in doing so restore order of society and ensure the men and women of this time can live free of tyranny and banditry. Then they are gone. Perhaps they left with the caravan as a guard, maybe they simply moved on to the next settlement, or they just found the Slip Door they were looking and their Guns knows the location of and stepped through, not to the next settlement, though there is always one, but the next world. This is the life of the Gunslinger, wielder of the legendary gun across the Drifted World and their credo is “We deal in lead.”

We Deal In Lead: A Weird West Wanders Game is an Old School Renaissance-style roleplaying game published by By Odin’s Beard. It is set in in the post-apocalyptic dark and weird west of the Drifted World that can step sideways into other worlds and genres and back again as legendary Gunslingers stalk the land, perhaps bringing order to the remnants of society, and then moving on to fulfil quests of their own. Perhaps to kill the murder of their order’s elder, retrieve their lost elder’s guns and take up her mantle, restore their honour, or even slay the demon within. It combines a stripped-down presentation with the mechanics inspired by Cairn, Into the Odd, and Knave and presents the tools and tables to create wildernesses, worlds, and excursions, whether the Warden—as the Game Master is called—is running for a single player, a group, or a player is playing it as a journaling game and thus solo. As a setting and roleplaying game, it is very much inspired by Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series of novels, but also has the feel of a weird Spaghetti Western with genre-hopping possibilities in terms of other roleplaying adventures.

We Deal In Lead begins with advice for Warden and player alike. It does this as a series of principles presented as bullet points. For the Warden these include design philosophy—neutrality of the role, that the roleplaying game is Classless, death is always a possibility, the players should always be presented with clear choices, and the players share objectives, and so on, as well as the nature of adventures, content and safety tools, how to handle information, difficulty, narrative focus, and preparation, and present danger, treasure, and choice. For the player, the principles advise agency, teamwork, exploration, talking, caution, planning, and ambition, and if one path leads to defeat, then they should look for an alternative path. For the most part, these will be familiar to adherents of the Old School Renaissance, but are not elucidated upon, but rather kept short and to the point. The same is done when describing the Drifted World, a set of principles that are to the point rather than providing any great detail. On the plus side this means that there are going to be basic elements which will be the same from one Warden’s game of We Deal In Lead to another because the principles are presented in a direct and accessible fashion, whilst leaving plenty of scope for the Warden to develop the details. On the downside, this can leave the Warden with more effort required to prepare and run a game, although the book includes numerous tables designed to help with that. Overall, the sparse nature of these sets of principles reflects the open nature of We Deal In Lead’s Drifted World.

A Gunslinger in We Deal In Lead has three Abilities—Strength, Dexterity, and Heart, ranging in value between three and eighteen. Of the three abilities, Strength and Dexterity are obvious in their use, whilst Heart is used for social interaction, carrying out rituals, and in Gunslinger duels. Grit represents his ability to endure and continue rather than health, plus various physical and mental traits and some equipment. He owns a Gun, a firearm out of antiquity with inlaid stock and engraving. He may also be a member of an order of Gunslingers, led by an Errant. This might be a Player Character or an NPC. To create a Gunslinger in We Deal In Lead, a player chooses or rolls on the tables for name, surname, and background, plus any extra traits, and then three six-sided dice for the Gunslinger’s abilities, followed by two six-sided dice for his Grit. He selects or rolls for the details of his gun and his hat, and then some equipment. The Gunslinger is ready to play.

Maggie Chambers
Age: 38
Background: Bandit Physique: Short Skin: Pockmarked Hair: Braided Face: Sunken Eyes: Distant Speech: Squeaky Clothing: Colourful
Virtue: Tolerant Vice: Cold Reputation: Driven Misfortune: Heartbroken
Strength 13
Dexterity 16
Heart 15
Grit 9

Three days’ rations, torch, 12 lead, Rifle with ironwood grip and hawk engraving, galloner hat

Mechanically, We Deal In Lead is straightforward. When a player wants his Gunslinger to act, he rolls a save versus either Strength, Dexterity, or Heart, needing to roll equal to or lower than the value. A one always succeeds and a twenty always fails. Standard rules are used for advantage and disadvantage. Armour provides some Defence, but only against mundane attacks, not against bullets. Damage is inflicted directly on Grit, then Strength, which can inflict critical damage. When Strength is reduced to zero a Gunslinger is dead. Critical damage necessitates checking on the Scars Table, which depending on the damage suffered, can leave the Gunslinger with concussion, bloodied, touched (and aware of the location of the next Slip Door), or even dead. Gunfire is resolved not through a Save versus an ability, but a roll of two six-sided dice on the ‘Shoot Table’ which might mean maximum damage, a hit or a graze, a miss, or a mishap. It is thus random, but because the gun of the Gunslinger is an artefact or relic gun, it grants certain advantages, including Steel Resolve, in which the Gunslinger draws resolve from his weapon to restore Grit and special attacks. These differ by weapon. Thus, there is ‘Fan the Hammer’ for the six shooter and ‘Give It Both Barrels’ for the shotgun. If a Gunsmith and a forge can be found, a Gunslinger can have his Gun upgraded, although the price is high.

Duels—and specifically duels against other Gunslingers—are even deadlier as you would expect. Contests are required to determine who fires first and hitting an opposing duellist necessitates a save versus Heart. Damage is deducted directly from a Duellist’s Strength rather than Grit. Combat can be deadly, especially duels, and opponents will often flee Gunslingers, their morale broken. Gunslingers themselves can also be affected by the loss of morale, though usually only when they lose their Guns or their Errant is killed. Then they are broken.

Beyond the core rules and combat, We Deal In Lead provides for magic and companion beasts. The latter can bond with a Gunslinger and so become a Gunslinger themselves—bar the Gun, of course, a loyal companion who can help a Gunslinger on his quest. The former mostly involves rituals, often cast by groups. No magic itself is described, but rather the rules suggest that it be rare, knowledge of it having been mostly lost, and not without its cost. Unless presented with the means and motive to cast magic, it is likely to remain a narrative aspect of a campaign’s villain and thus the province of the Warden. Further rules cover wilderness exploration, of which there is a lot in the roleplaying game, so turning parts of its play into a hexcrawl, and traversing to other worlds, primarily through Slip Doors. There are threats and legends that stalk the in-between spaces, but a Gunslinger’s Gun never stops working—though he may need to find a world’s alternative to lead. The wilderness rules are supported by a table of wilderness encounter hooks and a lengthier and more detailed set of tables to create excursions, essentially missions on the other side of Slip Doors on other worlds. Both are designed to work with the solo or journaling rules that allow a single player to stalk the Drifted World via his Gunslinger, including a flow chart to track his progress. In addition, the bestiary in the appendix provides nearly forty monsters to face along the way. Some feel drawn straight of Dungeons & Dragons, some have a cryptological bent to them, whilst others like the Mayhem Beast, Serfbot, Skinshift, Ursborg, and Drifted Third are native to the setting. Lastly, in the scenario, ‘Swampwater Shootout’, the Gunslingers go after the turncoat who killed the Errant of their Order. It is a fairly short affair, designed to introduce the game and its mechanics, and should provide a session’s worth of action.

Physically, We Deal In Lead is well presented. For the most part the book is done in cream, but the thick border of every page is colour coded according to the chapter and its subject matter. This makes finding things in the book that little bit easier. The rules are all very clearly presented and surprisingly, for a book of its length, supported by proper examples both of character creation and combat. The latter is quite lengthy, taking up two whole pages and also serving as an example of play.

If there is an issue with We Deal In Lead it is in its openness and often its sense of the ineffable and the beyond. It leaves a very great deal for the Warden to fill in and develop, certainly in terms of anything akin to a campaign or long-term play. For some Wardens this will not be an issue, but for others, it may be the case. By comparison, the short term is very well supported with encounters and excursion ideas. This does though mean that there is a flexibility to We Deal In Lead, the Warden being free to run it in the slightly done setting as presented, create her own endless prairie, or even switch genres to a standard Western.

We Deal In Lead: A Weird West Wanders Game takes the Old School Renaissance and the Wild West to an empty, endless frontier, its sparseness and openness often matched by the look of the book. Whilst the origins of We Deal In Lead: A Weird West Wanders Game may lie in micro-clones such as Cairn and Knave, the designers do an excellent job of building upon them to present something new, in a different genre with the sense of a world that really has drifted on.

1 comment:

  1. "but also has the feel of a weird Spaghetti Western with genre-hopping possibilities."

    That just sounds like the Dark Tower novels. :)

    Seems like a cool game. Thanks for the review!